Editorial from the August 1942 issue of the Socialist Standard
There is a stirring in the ranks of the Churchmen. They are interesting themselves in social problems. They are, or so we are told, coming nearer to Socialism, or at least they are being “enlightened” and “progressive” and adopting “advanced” social reforms. For proof we are referred to the recent declaration by the Catholic Archbishops and to the Archbishop of York’s Conference at Malvern. Where then do the Churches stand to the major issue of our age, the struggle between Capitalism and Socialism? Do they fight with Socialists for the abolition of private ownership of the means of production and distribution and for the ending of the class system under which human labour-power is a commodity bought and sold? Or do they stand openly for capitalism? Truth to tell, they don’t do either. They are definitely and flatly against Socialism, but they never avow themselves frankly supporters of capitalism. Instead, they dwell on the need for fine sounding remedies for the “abuses” of capitalism. Like 19th century defenders of slavery in the British Empire and the U.S.A. who wanted slavery to be retained but wanted the slaveowners to be “just” and “kind” to their slaves, these Christian social reformers abhor the idea of abolishing Capitalist wage-slavery but they earnestly desire that it should be run according to modified rules. They side with the workers against “unjust” capitalists, but ever so much more they side with the capitalists against workers who want to abolish capitalism. Is this an unfair criticism? Let their own words give the answer.
The Catholic Church gave its answer in the Encyclical “Rerum Novarum” issued by Pope Leo XIII in 1891 (published in translation under the title “The Condition of the Working Classes,” by the Catholic Truth Society, price 6d.). It is open in .its hostility towards Socialism on the ground that the abolition of private ownership “is manifestly against justice. For every man has by nature the right to possess property as his own” (page 14), and that Socialists would “strike at the interests of every wage-earner, since they would deprive him of the liberty of disposing of his wages, and thereby of all hope and possibility of increasing his stock and of bettering his condition in life ” (pages 13 and 14).
It would seem a sufficient Socialist answer to this to point out that capitalism also must be “manifestly against justice” since it prevents the mass of workers, whether in Catholic or Protestant countries, from possessing any property worth mentioning. Socialism, by making the means of production the common property will for the first time enable all the community to have personal possessions in useful amount.
The Encyclical envisages the continuance of the class division of society, rich and poor, and of the system of wage-labour, but (in the words of the sub-titles) “Class should help class,” “The rich must help the poor” (but not so much that the rich man is thus prevented from being able “to keep up becomingly his condition, in life” page 25), but "The poor must accept their lot.”
That was in 1891, but it still stands as the official view, and lest there be any doubt about it Pope Pius XI, in 1931, issued a further Encyclical which affirmed that “no one can be at one and the same time a good Catholic and a true Socialist” (Manchester Guardian, May 18th, 1931). This led to some controversy, as it was awkward for those Labour Party supporters who proclaimed their doctrines to be Socialism, and led to an explanation by Father Henry Day, S.J., reported as follows in the Daily Telegraph (May 25th, 1931):—
Father Day said that it must be taken literally, and applied to every recognised form of Socialism . . . . The fundamental and necessary opposition between Catholicism and Socialism lay in the assertion by the one and the denial by the other of the right of individual property in capital. If this was grasped it would be clear that a good Catholic could not be a true Socialist.
Father Day ended with a special reference to Sir James Sexton, M.P., who had defended his membership of the Labour Party:—
Nationalisation of railways and mines was outside the question. If the politics of Sir James Sexton and the British Labour Party were confined to such measures, neither he nor they had any right to the title of Socialist.
More recently the Catholic Church issued a pastoral letter signed by Cardinal Hinsley and the Catholic Archbishops of Liverpool, Birmingham and Cardiff (Times, June 22nd, 1942). Regarded as a programme for reforming capitalism, it bears interesting comparison with such documents as the I.L.P. Living Income Programme issued some years ago. It includes a proposal for a living wage (amount not stated) which should be a first charge on industry, enabling a family not only to live a moderately comfortable life, but also to save. According to the Manchester Guardian (June 22nd, 1942) it provides also that if the employer cannot afford this minimum wage the difference should be made up by the whole industry or by the State. It would take us beyond the scope of this article to deal with the objections to this and other such proposals, but it may be conceded that in its intention it is at least superior to those family allowance schemes which propose allowances for children but overlook the possibility of wages generally being reduced and so wiping out the effect of the allowances.'
What, however, we are concerned with here is that the whole document deals only with the so-called abuses of capitalism and wage slavery, and does not admit the case against the system. It says that Christianity will not tolerate attacks on the dignity of man caused by unemployment and “the necessity of selling labour for less than a just wage”—but is prepared to tolerate the basic indignity of man having to sell his labour power at all!
Similarly with the Malvern Conference Report of the Church of England (published as “Life of the Church and the order of Society,” Industrial Christian Fellowship, 2d.), it holds, like the Catholic Church, that “property is necessary to fulness of personal life; all citizens should be enabled to hold such property as contributes to moral independence and spiritual freedom,” but again, like the Catholic Church, is fails to show how the mass of the population can ever reach that state while the means of production and distribution are privately owned by the capitalist class. All it concedes (and this again is in line with Catholic views), is that “where the rights of property conflict with the establishment of social justice or the general social welfare, those rights should be overridden, modified, or, if need be, abolished.” (Page 9.)
Why this evasion of what is the major issue? Had the delegates at the Malvern Conference never heard of the Socialist contention that private ownership of the means of production, etc., is against the general social welfare? Where then do they stand on the question? Are they for or against the Socialist view? If they are against it what exactly is their case for private ownership of other than personal articles? Subsequently, in conjunction with representatives of the Catholic Church and the Free Church Federal Council, the Archbishop of Canterbury issued a supplementary statement of five points, the first being " Extreme inequality in wealth and possessions should be abolished."
Here again we see the evasive nature of their proposals; they are all things to all men. They are not against capitalism but against some features of it. They do not set out to disprove the Socialist contention that the riches of the rich are the cause of the poverty of the poor. They do not come down flatly for capitalism, which engenders riches and poverty, or for Socialism, which will abolish both rich and poor and inaugurate a classless society, but they sit on the fence and boldly proclaim the empty intention of ending “extreme inequality” but without defining what they regard as extreme. All but the multi millionaires will heartily approve and even they will concede that some reduction of their possessions will be a small price to pay for keeping the remainder.
So much for the politically-minded Bishops. We may conclude with a brief reference to a Church-minded politician. President Roosevelt. On “United Nations Day” he ended a broadcast with a Prayer which dealt with victory in the war and reconstruction after it, and contained one passage interesting chiefly because of what it did not say:—
Grant us brotherhood in hope and union, not only for the space of this biller war. but for the days to come, which shall and must unite all the children of the earth.
Our earth it but a small star in the great universe, yet of it we can make, if we choose, a planet unvexed by war, untroubled by hunger or fear, and undivided by senseless distinctions of race, colour or theory. ("Daily Express," June 16th.)
Notice the significant omission of any reference to the one thing that deeply divides every nation on the earth, the division into a propertied class and a property, lets class, out of which arises all the bitterness of class struggle. It is a cardinal fact, not a theory; but it is not mentioned. Like the Churches, the President hopes for the removal of the theories which spring from the fact of class divided society—but not the removal of the class basis. Like them he is not for Socialism but against it.